Why people live in fear

I think one of the leading pastoral issues in the parish I serve — and, I suspect in many others — is fear. If fear dominates your thinking, it’s hard for hope, abundance, generosity, and love to make much impact. Here are some examples of fear-based thinking, things that I’ve actually heard people say.

  • My kid has to be in soccer on Sunday mornings, or she might not get into a good college.
  • We can’t give more money to the church, because we might lose our jobs.
  • I need to drive this SUV because it’s safer, even though I know it’s not good for the environment.
  • I don’t know if I want my children to go into the city on the mission project. The city isn’t safe.
  • We’d like to leave the church open for prayer, but something might happen to our stuff.

Where does that fear come from? Look no further than the GraphJam blog. It’s intended as humor, but I’ll bet it’s not so far from the truth:

You are what you eat. There’s truth to that. And you are what you read, what you hear, and what you watch. One person I know stopped listening to the news and starting saying Morning Prayer first thing every day. It changed her world.

Those bullet points at the top of the post? Here’s what abundant thinkers might say instead:

  • A good spiritual life is most important. My kid will be in church every Sunday, and I know she will get into a good school if she’s a well-formed young woman.
  • We’ll be generous. We know that God comes first, and that includes our check book. (There are families who keep up their pledges even when income goes down. And you know what? They’re the people who complain the least about not having enough.)
  • I’ll find a car that’s safe and good for the environment. (By the way, SUVs are really more dangerous to their occupants than other cars.)
  • My kids will benefit from mission work, and being in the city will open their eyes.
  • Our church is meant to be a “house of prayer for all people” not a museum. We can take some sensible precautions. If something ever did happen to our stuff, we have adequate insurance.

Doesn’t that sound better?

I advise people again and again not to watch television news. It’s all about fear. A good newspaper has a better ratio of senseless fear to reasonable reporting than any television news program. If you don’t want to kill trees, the New York Times or any number of other websites will inform you about world events, usually without so much hype and ferocity as television.

Anecdotally, the people I know who are most devoted to the evening news are less likely to be devoted to discipleship (there are, of course, always exceptions). What’s your experience — either in your life or in those around you?

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5 Responses

  1. I must confess to being a news addict, though I tend to get my news from online newspapers and other sources rather than TV news (excepting of course ESPN). It is easy though to get caught up in not only the fear, but the drive to win in the news, particularly in the political sphere.

    Though in my line of work I can’t give up on being up on the news, like your parishioner, I do make an effort to pray the office regularly, and force myself to take time at least once a week to reflect and write on an issue of faith that is relevant in order to center myself and remind me the greater reasons behind why I do what I do.

  2. Malcolm says:

    Here in Regina in the early 1980s, crime rates – including violent crime – were steadily falling as they had been for some years. Yet all of a sudden, polling indicated that fear of violent crime had shot up over the period of a few months and then stayed high.

    Had their been a brief but bloody crime wave?


    Our local cable company, which had been carrying ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS signals from North Dakota switched to signals from Detroit. Instead of cattle prices in Fargo, the daily news on those channels (and the “breaking news” interuptions) were coming from the somewhat more violent industrial city.

  3. Ethan Gafford says:

    Okay, so I agree on all points save one. So far as I can tell, reducing pledge because income actually drops (not because it might) is not a matter of fear, but often of sanity and stewardship.

    I know there’s an interpretation of the pledge that’s a mystical bond between the congregant and God which has nothing to do with worldly prosperity and is purely a measure of the congregant’s thanks, love, and prayerfulness, in dollar value. So far as I can tell, this is only a half-truth.

    It’s true that giving as much as you can, and stretching to give more, is a valuable spiritual exercise. And yet, when one’s income goes down, it’s not at all insane to reduce one’s pledge if it creates a hardship. It’s true that pledging is about grace, but it’s also a very practical exercise. The civic system is willing to accept that when someone becomes poor, their tax burden goes down, and they may become eligible for aid. Is Ceasar really more understanding in hard times than God?

    There is a financial burden that the church imposes on its members. That yoke should by all means be worn joyfully. However, if one of its members actually starts to stumble under it, it’s sane and just for a loving community to help to make it less troublesome for them. The widow who gave a few copper is giving more than the rest of the congregation, and she doesn’t have to give as much as she did when her husband was alive for God Himself to recognize that.

    Further, you say that “God comes first” in financial matters. True, but does God really want all possible money to be given to the institutional church? “God comes first” is a call to stewardship and reason in ALL financial dealings, not solely a call to the collection plate. By all means, the collection plate is a part of it, but it’s not by any means the whole story.

    So yeah, point taken that it’s good to continue giving, but sanity and stewardship are good too, and the church ought to be understanding and flexible enough to understand that it needs to live within the means afforded it by its members’ current ability to freely and joyfully give, just as its members must be flexible enought to live within the means fortune grants them.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Ethan, I didn’t make myself clear enough — the hazard of bullet points. Of course, it makes sense for someone to decrease their pledge to a church if income goes down, particularly if the pledge represents a significant percentage of income.

    I was thinking more of people who, say, decide to cut their $5/week pledge, which was never a measurable fraction of income to begin with. Or the person who, though they are not living on retirement income, cuts their pledge because their 401(k) went down, even though income is unchanged. These are fear-based responses. Many begin out of fear and never experience generosity.

    But, again, for those who are giving proportionally, particularly if that amount is 5 or 10 per cent, it would be entirely sensible to decrease — especially since one’s “discretionary” income may be greatly cut in the event of a salary reduction or job loss.

    I do not believe the church should ask anyone to suffer to make their pledge. In Rhode Island, where the average pledge is less than 2% of household income, there is little danger of that.

    My point in mentioning the families who kept up their pledge is that they sought generosity as a response — and that was financially viable for them. We always say, and we mean it, that pledges can be revised upward or downward. I hope I’ve never made anyone feel guilty for a decrease!

    Thanks for your comment. Hope my response helps.


    P.S. The widow’s mite is something I often mention, because it is a good reminder of any number of things. One is that a $50/week pledge may be a pittance for one, while a $5/week pledge is a sacrifice for another. That can never be forgotten.

  5. Ethan Gafford says:

    Yeah okay. I sometimes forget just how little RI gives on average. 2% is crazytalk. Fire away.